'Handmaid's Tale,' 'Mrs. Maisel' and More Series' Cinematographers on Filming "Pastel" 1950s New York and a Dark, Dystopian Gilead

10:30 AM 8/15/2019

by Carolyn Giardina

The Emmy-nominated lensers on 'Hanna' and 'Russian Doll' also share secrets to how they brought their shows to life.

Elisabeth Moss' June is alone in an abandoned house when she goes into labor on the 11th  episode of season two of Hulu's 'Handmaid's Tale.'
Elisabeth Moss' June is alone in an abandoned house when she goes into labor on the 11th  episode of season two of Hulu's 'Handmaid's Tale.'
George Kraychyk/Hulu

  • 'Hanna'

    Amazon

    Jonathan Prime/Amazon Studios

    Based on Joe Wright's film of the same name, Amazon's Hanna stars Esme Creed-Miles as the title character, a teenager on the run from the CIA.

    For series cinematographer Dana Gonzales, the process started with looking back at the 2011 movie. "When reimagining an amazing film, you cannot help but think about the original images and tone," says Gonzales, whose previous work includes the FX series Fargo and Legion.

    But Gonzales and director Sarah Adina Smith decided they wouldn't precisely follow in the footsteps of the film. "We wanted the audience to experience the world like Hanna does: the wilderness that she has lived in since birth for 16 years and the harsh reality of the outside world that becomes her new surroundings."

    The nominated "Forest" episode (the first of eight in the first season), set in Poland, was shot in Budapest and the Tatra Mountains bordering Slovakia and Poland. "With a significant part of the pilot episode being shot in snow [in the mountains], moving the camera as much as we did became a major time commitment," says Gonzales. "Great planning and a dedicated Hungarian crew made this possible. The camera movement is seamless, and the audience is able to experience the openness of Hanna's world."

    Gonzales, who says he's a huge fan of foreign films, aimed for Hanna's forest home to have a mystical quality to it. "I wanted it to be both magical and mysterious and feel far away," he says. "I wanted the forest to be rich with atmosphere and in full contrast to the Moroccan and European locations where Hanna hides out and plans her next moves." He shot Hanna's childhood forest world with Panavision Primo lenses because "the sharp perfect optics reflect Hanna's clean, pure, innocence."

    Flashbacks, as well as Hanna's world when she leaves the forest, were shot with Panavision PVintage Prime lenses. "I felt these lenses organically reflected how Hanna and the audience would experience the new, wonderful and dangerous situations the series would dive into," Gonzales explains. "The lens' nonperfect color, character and creamy flares become distinct in Hanna's perspective."

    The cinematographer adds that he always targets an "organic approach" with his photography. "I always feel that helps the story and characters become more accessible to the audience," he says, "with the lenses and lighting creating a distinctive tone that can be adjusted for the story arcs."

  • 'Russian Doll'

    Netflix

    Courtesy of Netflix

    Russian Doll stars Natasha Lyonne as Nadia, a woman who repeatedly dies and then finds herself back at the same party on the same night at her friend Maxine's New York loft ­— presenting a unique problem for the team involved with crafting the show. "We discussed in great detail how to address the repetition," says cinematographer Chris Teague.

    Teague notes that the team used Bill Murray's 1993 comedy Groundhog Day as a reference because it had a similar concept of a man repeating the same day over and over again. "But we ended up approaching it differently. The conceit of the endlessly repeating day in Groundhog Day reveals itself slowly, but because Nadia is such a freight train of a character, we wanted to dive right in and anchor the look of each scene with her intention or state of mind," he says. "If she was eagerly pursuing a new lead, the camera moved quickly with her. If she was reckoning with an unsettling revelation, the camera would be more static. While the setting stays the same, Nadia's place in her journey is always different, and we wanted the camera to reflect that."

  • 'The Handmaid's Tale'

    Hulu

    George Kraychyk/Hulu

    June (Elisabeth Moss) is alone at a large country home when she goes into labor. Noting that there's very little dialogue in this "Holly" episode, cinematographer Zoë White says she focused on keeping the tension high while moving the story forward. "We wanted you to feel all the brutal physicality June was experiencing, so we kept as close to her as possible, using a lot of Steadicam leading and following her in real time. I called it gravity in Gilead!" says White, adding, "We thought of the house as a presence looking back at her. With the electricity out and the bitter cold of dead winter adding to her struggles, we brought natural-looking light from all the windows and emphasized the atmosphere in the trees and her breath running through the fresh, freezing snow. As day turns to night, she gives birth naked by the fire, which was a raw and intense scene to shoot." Of the series star and executive producer, she says simply, "Elisabeth Moss was absolutely fearless."

  • 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel'

    Amazon

    Courtesy of Amazon

    The series' photographic approach to New York City started with a discussion with creators Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino as they planned the pilot episode and carried into the second season. "They wanted a rich, saturated, vibrant image with a lot of energetic camera movement. They also asked for lighting that was naturalistic but flattered the cast," says cinematographer M. David Mullen. Inspirations included period New York-set stories such as Hannah and Her Sisters, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Sweet Smell of Success and Carol. "The color design of the time was something I call 'aggressively pastel.' Colors weren't always saturated, but they stood out by being framed against more neutral backgrounds." he says. Mullen wanted the "romantic feeling" of period Technicolor, though with lighting that was "softer and more motivated by natural sources." He used "soft top-lighting as a way of avoiding camera shadows while keeping lighting equipment out of the frame. When possible, I use colored lighting to enhance scenes, but often the production design and costuming provide enough rich colors that I don't have to add more."

    This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.